A fire is raging in North County -- a bitter blaze of emotion over the killing of two black men by white detectives at a Jack in the Box restaurant in Berkeley last Monday -- and St. Louis County law-enforcement officials have arrived on the scene.
With a bucket of kerosene.
In a stunning display of arrogance, county police stopped just short of giving one another high-fives in the aftermath of the broad-daylight killing of Ronald Beasley and Earl Murray. One officer charmingly termed it "unintended, but not a mistake."
The two men were killed in a rain of bullets -- apparently as many as 20 -- as two officers opened fire in the restaurant's parking lot when Murray vainly attempted to speed away from an attempted drug bust by the officers' unit, the St. Louis County Multi-Jurisdictional Drug Task Force. Black activists and family members have called it "murder" and an "execution," and they've marched in protest.
Despite this -- and despite the obvious racial tensions that have racked the entire nation over police beatings and shootings of blacks -- not one top county official bothered to attend a news conference on the situation. County police spokesman Rick Eckhard told me Tuesday that St. Louis County Police Chief Ron Battelle "was not entertaining interviews" beyond a one-page press release issued last Tuesday, one day after the shooting.
The police are also refusing to release videotapes from parking-lot security cameras they confiscated from the scene, and they won't release the names of the shooters. County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch did not return a call Tuesday, but previously a spokesman for him said the case would be handled like any other and that it didn't warrant outside review.
Well, it isn't like any other case.
At the behest of Urban League president Jim Buford, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno has asked the FBI to investigate the shootings. The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously Monday to endorse the FBI's participation.
It is too early to assert that criminal charges or other sanctions are in order against the shooters in the wake of this nonmistake. It is also too early to rule them out, as the police seem to have done instantaneously.
The little that we know so far -- made especially sketchy by official stonewalling -- suggests this incident will not likely be used as a police-academy instructional film. Unless, that is, there's a class in insensitivity training.
In its best light, this was a dubious low-level drug bust gone sour. A federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent and an undercover Dellwood detective went to the Jack in the Box (with perhaps as many as seven other detectives) to nail Murray in a sting operation.
No evidence has surfaced yet that Murray was anything more than a small-time drug dealer -- family members were quoted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch saying he sold $20 rocks of cocaine, and all the police say they found after the shooting was a quarter-ounce -- so there's reason to wonder why, on the taxpayers' dime, he needed to be swarmed like a Medellin drug lord. Especially at 4:45 in the afternoon at a well-populated fast-food restaurant near a major highway.
Is any small-time drug dealer worth exposing the public (not to mention the officers) to the dangers that might be posed should he indeed resist arrest in that type of setting? Is anyone in the "Multi-Jurisdictional Drug Task Force" accountable to the public if those dangers turn -- as they did here -- to tragedy?
And was it truly necessary to spray all those bullets?
According to the police press release issued the day after the shooting, Murray, trying to flee in his car, backed violently into a Ford Explorer being driven by another DEA agent and then vainly attempted to "accelerate forward, causing his tires to spin and burn on the pavement.
"...The vehicle began to pivot and turn and two detectives found themselves between Murray's car and the curb," the release stated. "Fearing that Murray was using the vehicle as a weapon and was attempting to break free to strike them to avoid capture, the two detectives defended themselves by firing shots at Earl Murray. Consequently, both Murray and Beasley were shot multiple times."
Was jumping out of the way and apprehending the suspects later not an option? Presumably the FBI's investigation will at least address that question.
The press release went on to state that "both subjects have multiple felony convictions along with criminal histories that involve drugs and assault." No concern was expressed over the death of the "subjects," nor was sympathy expressed to their families.
It turns out that Beasley, father of three and manager of an auto-repair shop, was an innocent bystander and not a target of the sting operation. This came out two days after the killing and one day after the police press release referred to him as a "suspect" and a "subject."
The police declined on the first day to tell reporters whether there were guns in the car. The next day, they admitted the "subjects" were unarmed.
There are many questions still unanswered here. But setting aside the uncertainties of the case itself, there is little doubt that the county law-enforcement community needs a quick dose of reality therapy with regard to the explosiveness of this case from a racial standpoint.
No doubt many whites will resent this, but the anger among African-Americans is deeply rooted and undeniable over still another killing of blacks by white officers. Whatever one thinks of that, it cannot simply be ignored.
The Urban League's Buford -- a soft-spoken, respected black man best described as a moderate/conservative (and the son of a 25-year police officer) -- is not given to hyperbole. But to him, this is unmistakably a racial issue. And a dangerous one.
"Blacks are guilty until proven innocent, and whites are innocent until proven guilty in this country today," he said. "We don't have equal application of the law.
"There's a high level of anger and tension in the black community, across all lines of economic status, gender and education," Buford told me. "I was very pleased with Janet Reno's response -- that may be keeping a lid on this thing -- but we could still have a very serious problem in pockets of North County, especially if there were another incident with police."
Buford says blacks are concerned about their low level of representation on the drug task force and throughout county law enforcement and that the nonreaction by county officials to this incident is making things worse.
"The cavalier attitude of the county police department shows a disregard to the sensitivity of the African-American community," Buford says. "If this had happened in the city, (Police Chief) Ron Henderson would have been out there and the mayor would have been out there.
"Where's Ron Battelle and Bob McCulloch and (County Executive) Buzz Westfall? They should have had something to say about this."
It appears their silence says it all.
Let's just hope it's not fuel for the fire.